Democracy Club Finally Lets Brits Know Who Is Running for Parliament
BY Wendy M. Grossman | Wednesday, April 22 2015
May 7, 2015 is the date of the next British general election. On that day, everyone who cares to vote will go to their local polling station, pick up a small piece of paper, and mark on it, with a stubby pencil, their choice of candidate for Member of Parliament. The person with the most votes in each district wins. If one party wins a majority of the 650 Parliamentary seats, that party can form a government. If no party wins a majority, there will be a lot of dickering to form a coalition, as there was at the last election, in 2010, when the Liberal Democrats emerged as kingmaker and chose to ally with the Conservatives. By doing so, the LibDems offended so many of their own supporters that their number of Parliamentary seats is expected to drop precipitously this time round. According to a recent poll by the Guardian, the next government could well be a coalition of Labour and…the Scottish National Party.
In such a simple system, you have to assume it's easy to find lists of all the candidates and where individuals should go to vote in each area. One person, one Parliamentary seat, one local council, one polling station. Right?
Actually, no. Sym Roe, one of the leaders of a project called Democracy Club, will tell you that it's a lot more complicated than that — which is why his group's efforts are needed.
Generations of remapping and changing local authority catchments mean that in a surprising number of areas there is more than one active council. A resident may pay a "council tax" (based on the value of their home, like a US state's property tax, but with a component that reflects the number of people living in the household) to one authority but vote under the administration of another. Every voter is sent a card indicating their polling station — but if you lose it or forget it on the day you may not know which council website to check. As it happens, I live in a well-defined and well-provided area with just one council to deal with, whose website is a model of helpfulness, and my polling station is always the church community center across the street.
Even so, less than a month before the election the full list of candidates had yet to be published. Nominations didn't close until April 9 at 4pm, according to the council website, and the list was posted an hour later. Of course, the candidates for the main parties were already known and hard at work getting leaflets dropped into people's homes. But even after the list of candidates was published, nowhere is there a full, official list of all the candidates standing for Parliament nationwide.
"The information is not available," says Roe. "It's almost criminal that you can't find out who is standing before the election."
The reason is that the process of standing for Parliament is still rather localized: whether you are nominated by a party or nominate yourself, you file an application form with and pay a deposit to the council. When the council does finally publish the list, typically it is simply a PDF comprising just the candidate's name, their party, and the names of their proposer and seconder. Candidates like Zac Goldsmith (Conservative, Richmond Park) or Tom Watson (Labour, West Bromwich East), who are already serving in Parliament, are easy to look up via the pioneering They Work For You website set up approximately a decade ago by mySociety, an NGO dedicated to making previously opaque government processes transparent. The site will show you the voting record, Parliamentary statements, and public appearances of any MP. But for each area that's just one candidate. For everyone else (in my area, that's four other candidates), you're on your own with Internet searches.
"It leads to often not very informed votes based on what the party leaders say at the time," says Roe. Besides, he adds, "There is the fundamental point that PDFs on 450 council websites is not the kind of open data that's useful for reuse." To get ahead on building the candidate list, Democracy Club emailed 1,800 candidates from the last election asking if they were standing again.
The one way that people in a local area can, and do, get to know their candidates is through what are known as "hustings," basically, meetings organized by local special interest groups which candidates attend and answer questions. Roe's MeetYourNextMP site lists six hustings for my local area run by groups from the local Chamber of Commerce to the local churches and civil society and the names of the candidates expected to attend each one. This is already more information than I've had in any previous election.
"It's completely non-partisan, not policy-based," Roe says. "It's just about transparency."
Democracy Club was started before the 2010 election by Seb Bacon and Tim Green who noted the lack of a published full list of candidates (or an API to enable making use of same) and set out to crowdsource the list. They managed to collect 98 percent of the standing candidates from every party across the entire country. Based on that, they began creating tools that would enable people to do quick but helpful things, such as post photos of the leaflets candidates send to households, and input the local issues in individual constituencies. They also tried emailing surveys to the candidates to fill out.
At the end of the election, however, the club's volunteers dispersed and the site went dormant. Over Christmas 2013, however, Roe and some friends got into a conversation wondering what had happened to the tools that had made them feel empowered. The day after Christmas, he put a list of the tools he thought were needed on Github. Others added some more items, and he spent some months going to mySociety meetups asking the experienced hands there what they thought they needed to build.
"Tom Steinberg [the founder and director of mySociety] pointed out that we were talking about Democracy Club and it was reborn," says Roe. One lesson he learned from mySociety was that building tools might be the wrong approach. "There are lots of tools out there already." What there wasn't was data — such as the list of candidates. "We held an unconference and did a mapping project."
The result was to show what tools were available, what information there was. "Not data, information," he says, meaning details such as where there were variances in what candidates told the different audiences if they attended two hustings in a row. There are generally no transcripts of such events, and typically only those who attend them know what happened. Roe also formed a "symbiotic" partnership with Will Moy, the leader of the Full Fact website, which analyzes and fact-checks media reports and politicians' claims.
The group of sites that Democracy Club now has up includes one intended to help people find their polling station, and another collecting uploaded images of the election leaflets that drop through the mail slots in people's front doors.
"The leaflets normally go straight from party headquarters to the bin without being looked at," says Roe, "but I assume they're valuable to the party or they wouldn't keep doing them. There's no oversight of what's being said at all." And, he says, "There's no way of knowing what the parties at the local level are actually saying. It's interesting to look back later to see what the party thought the most important thing in an area was." As Roe pointed out, when you start comparing local leaflets or individuals MPs' voting records to the national party's policies you notice significant differences, though given the whip system that pressures MPs to vote the party line, that may not matter when it comes time for Parliamentary votes.
"There's no official route to make that possible." The list of candidates, he says, was the key enabler. "Meet Your Next MP" — the site that provides the hustings and other events listings — "is only really possible because we have the list of candidates." Among other ideas creating the list opens up is asking candidates to submit their CVs like anyone else does when applying for a job.
Since November, when it went live, the site's open API and Creative Commons-Share-Alike data set has been picked up by such various groups as Google, the NGO 38 Degrees, Wikipedia, and the Daily Telegraph, which is using Democracy Club's database to create infographics showing the breakdown of votes from last time versus the candidates this time. The data also feed into surveys such as the one at Vote for Policies, which seeks to match voters to policies, rather than personalities.
Roe's big goal after this election is to keep Democracy Club going as a continuous process rather than let it go dormant again. The site is purely run by volunteers with no funding other than some time donated by mySociety to set up YourNextMP.
"Democracy doesn't happen at election time," says Roe. "There are lots of opportunities for building tools and data platforms that help people engage with their country at whatever level on a day-to-day basis." Over the next four and a half years, he hopes to build tools to support that.
Correction: MySociety donated time to set up YourNextMP, not Meet Your Next MP, as originally reported. And according to Sym Roe, PDFs on 450 council websites is not helpful data. An earlier version of this article misstated the number of council websites.